Mt. Robson, North Face (Davis/Callis Route)

By: Everett Fee | Climbers: Everett Fee, Rupert Wedgwood, Dini Harrison, Neil Caldwell |Trip Dates: September 23-24, 1995

Photo: Gary Clark

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Mount Robson is the undisputed monarch of the Canadian Rockies. Towering over everything in sight, the mountain is a magnet for bad weather, frequently remaining wrapped in clouds when the rest of the range basks in sunshine. This, together with the fact that there is no easy way to achieve its summit, make Robson a rare prize and every year aspirants come from around the world to test their mettle in this gigantic icy crucible.

There are several routes - all superb - on Robson. Of these, probably the most widely desired is its stupendous North Face: a frozen sea more than 4000 feet high and tilted at an average angle of 55 degrees (steeper and three times higher than the north face of Athabasca). After 15 years of dreaming about this route I was determined to make it happen in 1995. By Christmas of 1994 my plans were complete: Doug Nelson, who had climbed Robson by the Kain Face with my wife Lucille in 1990, agreed to be my partner and the last week of July was to be the time. Unfortunately, in late July the weather was atrocious everywhere in the Rockies and it would have been futile to throw ourselves at Robson. Instead we climbed the Skyladder route on Andromeda, a worthy achievement under the prevailing circumstances but far from my dream climb. (In truth, conditions at the time were so bad that it was arguably insane to have been on even that modest route. We could hear water running under the snowpack on the face and a wet avalanche obliterated our steps just after we completed it!)

I was a disappointed unit when I left the Rockies in August. But I'm stubborn when I really want something, and after six weeks of rock climbing in Northwest Ontario and Italy, I was back. This time the weather was perfect---a blocked high pressure system was hanging over the Rockies, and the forecast was for at least a week of cloudless skies. Now my problem was finding a partner; Doug farms wheat and was busy harvesting. Terry Makos, a friend who lives in Canmore told me to call Rupert Wedgwood, a Jasper Park warden who might be available. I did, and it turned out that he, Diny Harrison, and Neil Caldwell were looking for a fourth person to share the cost of helicoptering into the base of the north face of Robson---talk about luck! Two days later at the crack of dawn our crampons bit into the glacier beneath Robson's north face.

There's not much to say about the climb: everything went pretty much according to plan. Our only tense moment was at the bergschrund, where Rupert took a harmless leader fall when a snow bridge collapsed. Above that, we moved simultaneously (no pro') up the first third of the face. We started pitching it out when we came up to a rock band and belayed the rest of the face: it was clear that the weather was going to hold ... why rush the climb of a lifetime? Further, the snow on the face was so incredibly hard---it took three kicks to make a single step---that after about a rope length the leader needed a break; since we had to swap leads regularly, why not put in an anchor and be completely safe?

After eleven hours on the face, I broke unexpectedly onto the east ridge 100' from the summit. We were all exhausted: physically for obvious reasons, mentally from climbing all day beneath menacing summit cornices. A small bowl just below the summit was our home for the night; literally heaven on earth. The next day it took us six hours to descend via the Kain Face. The first three downclimbed belayed from above; the fourth downclimbed belayed from below. I doubt that our anchors would have sustained a leader fall, but by the time that the last person started down there were great steps.

Gear heads section: We used a single snow picket and buried axes (T-slots) for anchors. We wished we'd brought four pickets; T-slots take a lot of time to make and probably aren't as secure as pickets. We didn't place any ice screws and didn't even carry rock gear. Conditions change, however; in mid-summer water ice is common on the face. The only other item of gear that wasn't perfect were my ice axes: 50 and 55 cm Stubai Tirols, which are designed for climbing steep waterfall ice. Forcing their rubber-coated shafts through the boilerplate snow covering the face was exhausting work. Metal-shafted axes would have been as secure and much less tiring to use. Finally, if I were doing the route again I would substitute a 65 cm classic axe for the 55 cm tool; nowhere is the face steep enough to require two technical axes and a longer axe would've been handy in a lot of places on the descent.

Logistics: The helicopter dropped us off on the rocky bench below the glacier at the foot of the north face and picked us up from the Dome beneath the Kain Face for a total cost of CAD$1200. Choppering in and out eliminated a lot of vertical and---equally important---horizontal distance. From the parking lot to where you would leave the trail is at least 20 Km; I've hiked it twice in the past and both times it took us the better part of a day. After that you're looking at a river crossing, loose scree, and quite a bit of rock (5.4-5.6 depending on the line you take) to get to where we were dropped off. I really didn't have any choice in the matter, and if I had I probably wouldn't have sprung for a 'chopper (I'm notoriously cheap) but my knees and ankles were sure glad that we did!